Obituary: Adrian Heath
Monday 21 September 1992
ADRIAN HEATH's great gifts as an abstract painter were consistently reinforced and guided by the idealism felt and shared by an entire generation of post-war abstract artists working in England. His friends and sometimes colleagues in shared exhibitions included Adrian Hill, Victor Pasmore, Malcolm Hughes, William Scott, Peter Lanyon, Patrick Heron and Terry Frost, all exploring different kinds of abstract imagery in varying ways but all united by a subconscious hope, inherited from the pre-war precepts of Ben Nicholson and Barbara Hepworth, that the purposes of art were not to record the more gross aspects of life but to feed experience, visual and social, into a transcendental and idealistically pure abstract vision which might help to make a better world. Heath retained always in his work that sense of idealism, of an imagery purged of dross or any merely descriptive detail, but fleshed out in terms of light, colour, richly varied textures, and taut, precisely balanced structure.
Heath's points of departure, however remote, were the female body and landscape, although what you see in any typical Heath painting is a beautifully poised, flat arrangement of interlocking planes bounded by generous curves, sudden acute angles and box-like shapes, a kind of poetically humanised geometry, tenderly set out and illuminated. Absolutely European in his outlook, there was a slight influence of de Stael and Poliakoff in Heath's early paintings. He made many drawings of the nude and of landscape but never exhibited them and they were never used in any direct way in his paintings. Heath was far more concerned with reconciling the character of geometric shape with the nature of organic form than with making any recognisable references to the natural, verifiable, physical world. Part of the game was to modify the order of a finely balanced semi-geometric structure with the spontaneity of touch in the handling of pigment, the registration of texture.
A hard worker, Heath enjoyed also a highly developed social sense which found its fullest expression in warm friendships with fellow artists and innumerable kindnesses to students everywhere. Heath was a devoted, well-informed and highly intelligent teacher delighted always to find useful facilities or extra funds for students from bursaries, prizes or grants - or, quite frequently, privately from his own pocket. From 1970 on we met every year in the most convivial way, usually in his home, to select a young artist to send to the United States with a modest bursary from a Memorial Trust set up by myself, in memory of Mark Rothko, with Caryl Hubbard and Paul Huxley as co-trustees with Adrian. We will miss him.
Adrian Heath was a quite exceptionally kind and generous man, in a self-effacing way, much concerned for the common good among artists. His short, muscular, rather stocky figure, with a lock of hair falling across his eyes and a cheerful grin slightly mocking the artificial context, was a welcome sight at private views and art parties. Gregarious, relishing a good stiff whisky or a decent wine, Heath loved to tell long bizarre stories, in a faintly ex-public- schoolboy manner, about figures in the art world, but invariably without malice. His house in Charlotte Street was very much an artist's home: elegant, rather bare but well furnished with good modern furniture and just one or two first-rate paintings on the wall, always by other artists, notably Victor Pasmore in either the early figurative mode or the later abstract style.
Heath's contribution to post-war British art was distinguished not only through the example of his own painting but also manifest in a good deal of hard practical work on behalf of his fellow artists. He helped to organise the first post-war show of abstract art at the AIA gallery in 1951 and published an essay on Abstract Art: its origin and meaning in 1953. He was chairman of the politically idealist AIA (Artists International Association) from 1954 to 1964 and served on the Arts Council's advisory art panel from 1964 to 1967.
Heath's longest and most idyllic phase as a teacher was from 1955 to 1976 at the Bath Academy of Art, Lord Methuen's exceptionally beautiful Corsham Court home set in lovely grounds and where Peter Lanyon and William Scott were among many other distinguished companions. More recently, Heath continued his good work as an artist in residence at Sussex University in 1969; as Senior Fellow at the South Glamorgan Institute of Higher Education Faculty of Art and Design in 1977-80; and, in 1981, as Visiting Lecturer at Reading University.
Although London and its art world always seemed to be Adrian Heath's natural base, he enjoyed travel, particularly in France, Spain and Morocco. He once wrote that he preferred 'looking at the barren landscape of the Hebrides or Spain to the countryside of Southern England' - and he disappeared for long working periods to a cottage in a remote part of Scotland. Although he loved Cornwall, I never heard him speak of his early apprenticeship at 18 to Stanhope Forbes at Newlyn, or his time at the Slade, or his experiences, doubtless hilarious and terrible, in the RAF, partly as a prisoner of war. He was too amusedly intent upon the present to dwell on the past. Adrian Heath had a disarmingly casual, throwaway style as a person. But as an artist of great spirit and integrity, his career in England should now be commemorated by a decently staged retrospective exhibition at the Tate, the Hayward or the Serpentine Gallery.
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